Letter from Halkidiki

As readers no doubt have a right to know how a columnist spends his time, I feel duty-bound to inform you that this present column is being written in the resort of Halkidiki in northern Greece, in a place called Kalamitsi at the southern end of the Sithonia peninsula, facing Mount Athos. It is one of the few regions that have been spared from the urban growth that one encounters in many parts of Greece. Here, the great majority of the new wealth has been generated by tourism. There are other factors too, such as the economic confidence that comes with political stability and European Union funding. But it is mainly down to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who visit Halkidiki during the summer months and have transformed the lives of the locals – and for the better. The pallid hordes of the northern hemisphere – Russians, Poles and all those other East Europeans that frequent Halkidiki – seem to have a clear preference for this area, which has earned the European Union’s protection for its unique beauty. Forests of pine trees, untouched by man and a clear blue sea that washes countless sandy beaches make Sithonia a veritable paradise on earth. The history of the area begins with the myth of the birth of the world with the Battle of the Titans and the victory of Zeus and passes to the village of Stagira, the birthplace of Aristotle. It continues with Mount Athos and its thousand-year-old Byzantine monasteries. Today, as people celebrate tourism as one of the wonders of our age, Turkey and Greece appear to be competing for the same European summer trade. Consequently, elections in Turkey yesterday generated considerable interest also among people in Halkidiki. (As Turkish voters went to polling stations yesterday, the impression in Halkidiki was that the Turks will opt for security by voting for the incumbent, Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.) Far from the Aegean islands, from trendy Myconos and Rhodes, Halkidiki is one of the most beautiful and relatively unexplored parts of Greece, unique for its remote coves. Even in August there are beaches where the only sound is the regular «whoosh» of your own breath passing through a snorkel. Beneath the surface of the bay, slow-moving fish resemble characters in a silent film screened against white sand. «It is going to be a very good year,» says Nikos Stefanidis who manages one of the «paradises» in Halkidiki, «Thalatta, Kalamitsi camp » Sure. It is going to be a good year all round. Greek tourism is set for a significant rise for a third straight year. Arrivals are projected to rise 6 percent in 2007, bringing the total increase since 2004 to 24 percent, Thessalonian Stavros Andreadis, president of the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE) and owner of Sani Hotels in the region of Kassandra, told a recent press briefing. Andreadis added that several other European countries, including Spain, are anticipating no change in arrivals. Cyprus looks like it will see a decline, while Turkey, Croatia and Egypt are expected to record significant increases. Andreadis also remarked that Turkey’s projected rise was encouraging in the sense that it does not appear to have dented demand for Greek holidays, despite the continuing appreciation of the euro. Turkey again! It is indeed a kind of yardstick for Greece. «We were headed for Turkey this summer,» a young father of three from Milwaukee told me in Kalamitsi. «It’s much cheaper than Greece and just as beautiful. But we were worried about our safety during the election period. Here we do not have similar worries.» This reminded me of an American travel advisory warning against travel to Greece. It was during the Reagan presidency. I also remember the way that the Washington Post tried to enlighten the public in the US on the critical question: Is traveling to Greece dangerous for Americans or not? It is, the newspaper’s correspondent in Greece jested, but only if you are talking about the Greeks’ driving habits! Otherwise, he noted with obvious sarcasm, the total number of Americans who have been victims of terrorist acts in Greece is smaller than the number of people that die every year in the US from attacks by their own dogs.

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